‘Playful’ Irish LGBT-positive play teaches 7-year-olds to bend gender
An Irish theater company has created a pro-LGBT play specifically geared towards youngsters ages 7-13 with the goal of remolding a child’s conception of the human person as either male or female.
Titled “Aunty Ben,” the play tells the story of a nine-year-old primary student named Tracey who one day brings her school friends home to meet her exciting and fun-loving “Aunty Ben,” only to have the friends react negatively as they encounter a biological male decked-out in women’s clothing. As the story progresses, Tracey’s friends learn to overcome their negativity toward “Aunty Ben.”
“Tracey loves her Aunty Ben. It doesn't matter to her that Aunty Ben is actually her uncle, or that he is a Drag Queen, because in Tracey’s family dressing up is for everyone!” reads an online description of the play from the theater company’s website. “‘Aunty Ben’ is a colourful and playful exploration of gender, family, love and happiness, for young audiences aged 7+.”
The play makes every effort to sympathetically portray “Aunty Ben” as a victim of bullying.
“If they took the time to get to know Aunty Ben, they would see he was just as normal as you and me,” one of the adults in the play, who is portrayed as responsible and loving, tells Tracey after she is saddened by her friends’ reactions to meeting her uncle.
“Aunty Ben,” played by Veda Beaux Reeves — one of the country’s leading drag queens — makes the case in the play that the only way he can be true to himself is by dressing like a woman.
“As much as I love you darling, I don’t want to get into the habit of pretending to be somebody I’m not,” he tells a young child at one point in the play.
Children are sold on the concept of “Aunty Ben” by having the character make his living by dressing and imitating world-renowned female celebrities.
At one point in the play, a young child jokingly asks him: “Ben, when you dance like a lady, do you wear nickers and a bra?”
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“Aunty Ben” pauses before responding with a solemnly calculated “Yes.” The audience sees the child’s face fall as she realizes her question was not funny.
Why does the play target children?
The play’s writer Sian Ní Mhuirí, who is a committed atheist, said that young children are the perfect target audience for her play.
“People might say that children are too young to be exposed to this kind of talk,” she told the Irish Examiner, “but the truth is that they are taught gender roles since before primary school – through the media, ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys, and through Panto Dames, who we are told are figures of fun, something to laugh at. They don’t know about sexuality, but they do already know about gay and it being a bad word.”
“Homophobic bullying starts young. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters are nearly completely absent from children’s media, so depicting the home life and experiences of families with LGBT members is a rare and valuable thing. How can we expect our children to grow up without discomfort towards them when we hide their stories from view?”
Reeves said exposing young children to drag in the play is a “great way to start a conversation with kids about that.”
“I can see the benefit of addressing these things with children, in a non-confrontational way that has nothing to do with sex or sexuality,” he told the Irish Examiner.
The play, the flagship project of theater company Super Paua, has been brought to schools across Ireland in order to facilitate workshops where students learn about “LGBT oppression” and to question long-established societal norms.
Playwright: Pope Francis would support our play
In the theater company’s FAQ for parents reassuring them that the play is appropriate for young children, Ni Mhuiri explains that young children “do not need to understand LGBT sexuality, but they can still understand and normalize the social aspect of relationships.”
“If we omit positive, social stories of LGBT family relationships in children's media, we send them the subtle message that those stories are not important, or that they are somehow dangerous or shameful.”
Ni Mhuiri intends that at the end of the workshop, children will walk away with the “idea of ‘normal’ [a]s a relative concept” and that certain norms should be challenged.
Explicitly addressing potential concerns raised by Catholic parents, Ni Mhuiri writes that “extending respect and friendship” to people who identify as LGBT is “no longer controversial or disputed,” adding: “It has the support of the government's anti-bullying initiatives, as well as Pope Francis, and engages with the core Catholic and humanist ideals of love and tolerance.”
“Aunty Ben” premiered at this year’s International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. It then had a run in the Marlborough Theatre Brighton as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. The play is scheduled to begin a national and international tour next month.